The Angel opens side 2 of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., an odd place to set this kind of trifle. The instrumentation begins with a gently metronomic piano figure, and Springsteen sings quietly. It might be a lullaby for motorheads:
The angel rides with hunch-backed children
Poison oozing from his engine
The second verse is embellished by a fillip in the piano line as Springsteen almost croons the couplet:
The interstate’s choked with nomadic hordes
In Volkswagen vans with full running boards dragging great anchors
(Consider the similarity between that and this line from another side 2 opener, just two years later: “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes…“)
The bridge introduces some tension with foreboding piano chords, which underscore the introduction of a new character:
Madison Avenue’s claim to fame
In a trainer bra with eyes like rain
As the bridge resolves, a gorgeous bowed bass line is added to the piano. The instrumentation is deceptively simple – more than anything else on the Greetings… album, The Angel points to a compositional sensibility beyond the Dylan framework so much of Springsteen’s early material reflects. (His next album would take this much further.)
The song closes with a nice bit of imagery:
The woman strokes his polished chrome
And lies beside the angel’s bones
It would have been nice to find a word other than “woman,” to align with “trainer bra”; in any case, it seems clear she’s an unwitting femme fatale. The lullaby takes on the qualities of a Grimm’s tale, wherein the Angel is felled once he lets his guard down for a pretty face.
Although the grammar and the rhyme scheme are sloppy (like so much of Greetings…), The Angel is refreshingly unromantic and avoids cliche. Also, the words work better when considered as a twilight reverie, without insisting on coherence. Musically, it’s an easily overlooked gem – it might have shone brighter on a later album, instead of leading off side 2 on Springsteen’s debut. A better song than you might have remembered.